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BBC Radio 4

Living With Aids: Britain’s Battle
A 2006 Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4
Presented by Paul Gambaccini

Review by Rosie Wheatcroft

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)? In my limited knowledge, I think of the falling tombstone emblazoned with the words ‘don’t die of ignorance’, morbid leaflets in a GP waiting room, Africa, and rather ashamedly, a scene from Team America; World Police.

Because of my ignorance, I listened intently to this two-part BBC Radio 4 documentary, and came away from the radio feeling both informed and saddened. The presenter, Paul Gambaccini, provides an emotive yet objective view on the social impact that AIDS has on Britain, focusing on public ignorance, and the way in which it changed and developed after the death of much loved rock star, Freddie Mercury.

The programme starts with two men reminiscing about the lively gay scene in Britain in the seventies. An image of fashion, decadence, and hedonistic indulgence without guilt is painted so vividly, even I wanted to be a gay man taking part the popper-fuelled Village People dance orgy they talked about. The tone of the documentary then soberly shifted into quiet reflection, as a man named Rupert tells of his partners untimely, and then undiagnosed, death from AIDS.

Centred in the eighties, the documentary goes on to tell of the fear which bubbled under the surface of society as AIDS became more prominent and mysterious. The medical world and public alike were both uncertain as to how the HIV virus was spread, and the ensuing paranoia was remarkable.

Nick Partridge, one of the first members of staff at the Terence Higgins Trust, manned the help lines for those concerned about AIDS. Partridge tells of daily death threats and abuse from ill-informed homophobes. BT engineers even refused to carry out repair work on the busy lines because of fear they would catch the disease. But perhaps the most spectacular display of public ignorance was the phone call from an elderly lady who was scared her beloved cat would catch AIDS if it were to bite a gay man.

Discouragingly, this lack of compassion for those afflicted with AIDS stretched further than the ill-informed public, with the head of the Metropolitan police at the time, James Anderton, claiming that the rise of AIDS was a resulting ‘human cesspit of their own making.’ Hardly inspiring an understanding approach to this fatal disease.

In the second episode, Gambaccini presents us with the national reactions to deaths among the famous. Sadly, there remains a sense of confusion still, and not resolution and understanding. This two part series was created in response to the 25th anniversary of the first reported death from AIDS, and the nostalgic memories seek to remind us not only of the fear felt at the time, but of the progress the nation has made in understanding and treating this fatal disease.

Produced by the excellent Whistledown production company, the documentary presents many perspectives of those affected by AIDS, and Gambaccini seamlessly guides the direction of the programme with succinct cohesion. For such an emotionally charged subject, there is a pleasing lack of sensationalism and triteness.
I suspect the rest of the lazy weekend audience will be as impressed as I was with this informative and poignant documentary.

© Rosie Wheatcroft Jan 2007

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